Maintaining your emotional wellbeing the Shinrin-Yoku way


We all recognise that being outdoors makes us happy. It may come as no surprise that happiness and well-being are important factors which help protect against mental and physical disorders. But did you know that being outdoors is actually scientifically proven to aid in improving many mental and physical diseases and can even mimic medications for those ailments?
Researchers at King’s College London found that being outdoors, seeing trees and the natural sunlight, hearing birdsong, spotting the blue sky and feeling in contact with nature increases our feelings of wellbeing (1). Numerous such studies has helped us understand that we have certain neurotransmitters that we need to keep in balance for our wellbeing, such as: 

  • Serotonin – our “happy hormone”
Serotonin is a natural mood stabiliser. Its effect in the brain could be considered a “starring role” in the body. Serotonin is that transmitter that is all about making us feel positive, energetic and up for things. It also helps with sleeping, eating, and digesting. Too little of it, we have a sad depressed mood, low energy, negative thoughts, feel tense and irritable and experience an increased level of anxiety. If we have sufficient Serotonin in our brains, we feel stable and healthy.

High levels of prolonged stress, rob us of Serotonin. Conversely, experiments have shown that the rate of production of serotonin by the brain increases when we’re exposed to natural sunlight. 

  • Dopamine – the “wow” chemical.

Another neurotransmitter which is really important is dopamine. Its an important part of the brain’s reward system because its the messenger substance or neurotransmitter that conveys signals between neurons, when you feel that surge of elation when something really special happens.

Deficiency in dopamine levels can cause some imbalance in our life. A lack of dopamine is associated with fatigue, apathy, lack of focus, forgetfulness, moodiness, difficulty concentrating, insomnia and even sugar cravings.

There are many unhealthy ways to seek out a “dopamine fix”, such as nicotine, alcohol, recreational drugs, caffeine, and sugar-laden, fat-filled treats - all very effective at increasing dopamine levels and can, in turn, be the root cause of addictive behaviour in our life. However, these things that provide a quick boost end up disrupting the natural dopamine production process resulting in decreased dopamine production in the long-term.

Researchers have found being outdoors helped stop obsessive thoughts and negative emotions. Studies also found that those who walked in nature and received the most sunlight exposure have the highest density of dopamine receptors. Have you ever noticed that when you are in nature, you feel elated and almost instantaneously have a sense of calm and peace?

  • Cortisol – the stress hormone

There is a third brain chemical, a hormone called cortisol. Its incredibly important. It’s the fight or flight hormone. So, if you were being chased by a tiger, a surge of this coming from the adrenal cortex would give you the capacity to run really quick and escape. But, if its constantly produced, it becomes essentially the stress hormone. During lockdown, many are producing a lot of stress hormone because we have been plunged into very unusual times that we are not used to. This has caused stress in all sorts of ways. As a result, the cortisol levels have gone right up in our brain. 

Phytoncides – forest perfume

Phytoncide is a substance emitted by plants and trees. "Phyton" means "plant" in Latin, and "cide" means to exterminate. Phytoncides are produced to help plants and trees protect themselves from harmful insects and germs.

Numerous studies have shown that both exercising in nature and simply sitting looking at trees, relaxing while breathing in phytoncides, reduces blood pressure as well as the stress-related hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Being in nature also enhances your natural immunity because stress inhibits the immune system.

In Japan, a forest bathing trip, called “Shinrin-yoku”, is a short, leisurely visit to a forest. Shinrin in Japanese means “forest,” and yoku means “bath.” So shinrin-yoku means bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through our senses.

How Shinrin-yoku can help

What researchers in Japan found was that a dose of nature can reassert the balance between all of these chemicals. So, a walk in nature, listening to song bird, noticing the flora and fauna, inhaling phytoncides, helps the body function in a more balanced way, regulating its functions and changing the way it protects itself against viruses, bacteria, and cancer. These effects can last between seven days and a month after having just spent a few hours or a couple days of forest bathing. The studies on phytoncides and human health are both numerous and conclusive.

Nature helps. It doesn’t solve all of our mental health problems but it helps some of them.

Copyright © 2020 Kalpna Hirani

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